Eun had called it: Blake and his guys used the same moves, said the same stuff, and couldn’t remember the following day. Peter and his friends, however, were constantly refining and constantly growing. Soon, they were able to act as a unified consciousness. Defeating Blake became a matter of routine.
Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but Eun (of course) saw the reason for it.
“Dee’s evolving,” she explained as Kora rummaged through her locker. “And it’s not by choice. She yearns for stasis, but existence won’t allow it. Now that we can reliably beat her goons, she’s decided to bench them and save them for later. She’s trying to strategize.”
Kora grunted, shoving some books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “Well it won’t accelerate her demonic ascendance. From an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a fixed amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Like a 401k,” Peter said. “Early withdrawal comes with a penalty. Gotta let your money sit and grow.”
“Yep.” Kora nodded. “Exactly.”
“Can we shift our focus?” Peter asked. “Since Blake’s backed off, we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” He pumped his fist. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I kinda liked ’em,” Kora said wistfully.
“One month until senior prom.” Peter chewed his bottom lip. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun replied. “Prep our stuff, generalized training, keep an eye out…that sort of thing.”
“Great,” He smacked his fist into an open palm. “I’ve got a big-ass list I need to attend to.”
Kora raised a cautionary finger. “I’ve been through a lot of these—you know: gear up, make plans, put on your game face…and everyone neglects the same thing.” She gave her friends a weighted look.
“What?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun.”
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, came from Eun.
While the three teens had spent a month fighting Blake, Holly had spent a decade in the Territories.
Ten years back, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts. It had taken six months to hone her magic to where she could do it reliably. During that time, she’d taken shelter in her cliffside cave, eating the insects that roamed its depths. Once she was confident she could adequately defend herself, she struck out across the Territories, not just killing the spider-beasts, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapaces. She now wore a patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of dreary combat.
Her desire to live had improved her magic. She wasn’t sure how, but it was the only explanation. When she’d trained with Estilian, she’d experienced long days of teeth-grinding frustration, but when he’d threatened her life, she’d risen to the occasion. And later, when those damned spider-beasts had driven her to the cave, the prospect of death had made her even better.
She could now wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut through their shells with consummate ease. She’d also learned telekinesis—she could grapple with assailants using her mind alone, lining them up for devastating combos.
But a new complication had reared its head; she’d fallen prey to the Territories’ witchery.
Her journey should have taken six or seven months, nine tops. But she’d been stuck in the wasteland for over a decade. She knew where to go; she’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed south) with unwavering diligence. So she wasn’t drifting or straying off course.
That wasn’t all. Last year, the spider-beasts had changed.
Now, their thoraxes were topped by her blonde-haired head. She murdered scores of them, littering the desert with leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to attack her own face. Back when they’d just been insects, she’d gone for the skull every time—destroying their brains was a guaranteed kill. But after they’d stolen her cheer-queen semblance (hence her new name for them: face-stealers) she couldn’t do it.
So she marked her passage with a trail of heads, dotting the ground with her decapitated visage. Some looked angry, some looked sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. When she harvested meat from their stinking bodies, she staunchly ignored her macabre reflection.
Holly was plagued by relics of herself, yet she refused to acknowledge them.
During her fifteenth year in brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind. Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all.
Her reality narrowed with every step, until all that mattered was her endless trek and her relentless pursuers. Her world was simple: the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was this Hell? She wasn’t sure.
All she knew was she had to keep going. So she kept pushing through an alien nightmare, surrounded by the most familiar thing in all of existence:
Her own image.